Monday, March 30, 2020

What about the others?

      It has the feel of a Hitchcock drama, a foreboding sense of a world gone terribly wrong. Day by day we sink deeper into a quicksand of increasingly dire news.

We may choose to look the other way, but its impact is impossible to ignore. We may feign “life as usual,” knowing it is not. There is no escaping the truth of it……we are not dealing with a fictional, drama-induced menace. This is the real thing, standing on our doorstep, threatening to enter our personal universe.

Still, we are called to carry on…….to realize that in spite of the darkening clouds you and I are probably among the most fortunate. Right? Odds are you are sitting in your apartment or home, because you are not allowed to leave. You are there in front of your computer or on the couch with your smart phone, warm, comfortable, and well fed. That describes our circumstances at this moment.

Yet each of us, no matter where we are, is a citizen of this unfamiliar and disorienting world. To be sure I grumble about the new reality, with its confining, enforced isolation. “Social distancing” can be an unnatural pain in the butt. And it’s not just about us grown ups. I know school teachers who are worried about the impact, academically, socially, and physically, of school closures on their home-bound students. Even our family gatherings have been reduced to phone calls, emails, and Zoom sessions.

As I have noted before, television without live sports……watching the Oregon schools take part in March Madness or following my beloved Tottenham Hotspurs ……..has led to unsettling withdrawal symptoms. If crime dramas or reruns of every sort are not your favored TV viewing whatever is left is pretty depressing. And following the stock market during the day gives me a serious headache.

Yet the reasons for all that disruption are too real to wish away. The number of virus cases is soaring. Worst of all, without adequate testing we don’t know what we don’t know. We do know that our health-care system and health-care workers are being swamped, while our slow-to-respond  administration seems to care most about a stock-market revival at any cost.

All around us people have lost jobs, businesses are closing, and paychecks are vanishing. The pain is real and spreading. What could have prepared us for supermarket shelves stripped bare, while the walls of our own homes close in a little more each day?

Meanwhile, the politicians carry on, debating how to spend money they are creating out of thin air…..Trillions, with a ’T’ ……..soothing their unsettled constituents, while ensuring their own share of the ever-expanding fiscal pie. 
As so often happens, powerless hourly worker are once again pawns in an ugly game of power politics. How will they carry on? At the same time overstressed corporate CEO’s are living with their own sort of fear …….wondering how they can protect their company’s future and their own privileged place on the pedestal. 

We are watching our once-friendly world unravel in ways we could have never imagined, Our government, once the epitome of financial strength in a shaky world, seems to have thrown off all sense of fiscal restraint.
And all the while a multitude of small-business owners, with little or no power to withstand the viral tsunami, are watching their life’s work, their personal version of the American dream, slipping away. On a very personal level I have been there in those dire times. I can remember the sense of helplessness I felt as my economic universe threatened to spin out of control.

And yet, in many important ways we, the great majority of those living out this potentially lethal nightmare, are among the lucky ones. You see, for years my own home town has wrestled with an ongoing and very “unAmerican dream” reality…….one that now threatens to overwhelm us.

Downtown businesses are dealing with a literal invasion of homeless ill-defined blend of out-of-work, addicts, and mentally challenged. Dozens, even hundreds, of our no-longer unseen neighbors have come out into the light of day, squatting in front of stores, in the shelter of overhead awnings, in what have become semi-permanent encampments.
For a very long time those homeless folks, our neighbors, have struggled to carry on. In the best of times their life is hard and their health options limited. Today’s coronavirus world…..with its lay-offs, store closures, stay-a-home orders, and social distancing…….leaves them with even fewer options.

In the midst of unprecedented upheaval I am here to remind us of the ones we tend to forget even in the good times. How many of those homeless ones will be helped by “checks for everyone”? Will they be receiving that $1,200 windfall? Have you seen even a hint of governmental compassion, the kind that seems to be in vogue at the moment, for those unfortunate ones?

Of course they deserve our prayers……but so much more. Sadly, in a world that can scarcely catch its breath, “much more” seems a long way off.

So then, how does this Hitchcockian drama end…….. for us so-called “lucky ones,” and our less fortunate neighbors? Is there a miracle answer waiting in the wings…….an effective treatment or the hoped-for vaccine? Or does this painful slogging from one “hot spot” to the next continue? Only time will tell.

In the meantime every one of us needs those continuing prayers.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A morning without box scores is like a...................

   There comes a time, no matter what our age, when ready or not we have to step back, assess our reality, and chart our course down the bumpy road that stretches out before us. Of course it is bound to take some time……. learning to live in this new, upside-down world of social distancing, hunkering down, and drastically limited entertainment options. 

      Hopefully things will be better in time, but for now this is our world. For many of us our days, from morning to night, have changed in ways we would never have imagined pre-coronavirus.
  Ah yes……from morning to night……. With your permission I would like to turn your attention to the “morning” part of your day, especially the “early morning”…… in “Breakfast.”

Have you ever paused to consider the psychological, even cultural importance of your morning breakfast? For many of us those minutes, early in our day, are something of a ritual. Odds are that over the years your menu and routine have become “the right way for you to start your day.” And at least some of us find changes in that familiar ritual to be particularly off-putting.

Personally, I like my coffee black. Same for my toast. I once read that charcoal is healthy. And what Roma calls my “burnt toast” is always topped with the berry jam she canned last summer.

Then comes the instant oatmeal, liberally sprinkled with coconut flakes. With that, after gulping down the handful of meds and vitamins Nurse Jane Fuzzy-Wuzzy has set out for me, I am ready for a leisurely breakfast. (I was an Uncle Wiggly kid, at least until I grew into Freddy the Pig.)
Finally, with that tempting meal spread before me, I am ready to for the next step in my very personal “breakfast dance”……the morning newspaper.

I suppose I inherited my morning-paper fixation from my dad. I can’t remember when it was not a part of my breakfast, though I do recall missing it during boot camp in the Army. To this day if the morning paper is late I am apt to study every line of print on a cereal box. Why would a grown man carry on like that?

Yet, in spite of my undying allegiance to that morning news sheet I am here today to register my personal complaint. Truth is, all is not well in the newspaper world. In fact, in my corner of the universe we are experiencing something of a daily unnatural disaster.

Most mornings I can scan the few pages of our local paper’s national and local news in a matter of minutes. And thank God the comics page remains intact. Yet beyond that there is grave discontent in Breakfastville.

You see, for as long as I can remember my morning newspaper has included three primary elements………news, comics, and the SPORTS SECTION. That’s right, I seriously believe that a newspaper without a sports page is a weak and feeble imitation, scarcely worthy of its name. 

Sadly, for the last week or so it has felt as though my morning ritual has been emasculated……except for a token and all-too-bland weekend sports section there has not been a single mention of “sport” or a sport related story. During the week, no matter how hard I look I can find no sports stories, and no listing of televised sports programming or calendar of local athletic events.
Before you get the wrong idea, thinking that I am laying blame on poor little Gannett Corp and its dozens of local newspapers, I do realize they are working under something of a handicap. I understand that in the wake of a coronavirus tidal wave virtually every newsworthy event that might be labeled “sports” has been postponed, disbanded, or canceled.

Of course creating a sports page from almost zero sports news would be hard. But don’t we breakfast-table sports-page junkies deserve something more creative than nothing, nil, zilch? Please humor us, Mr. Editor. During the week why not give us at least a tiny morsel to help satisfy our sporting appetite. After all, man cannot live by dark and dreary news alone.......especially in the form of daily 'press briefings.'

Monday, March 16, 2020

Hunkering distancing in action

      Who would have guessed it could come to this? Yesterday’s Daily Mail headlines proclaim that English 70 year olds may be told (read commanded) to stay at home for up to four months. On the continent Spanish legislators are supposedly debating a $30,000 fine for citizens who do not “self quarantine.” Today the European Union “is poised to ban Britons from its continental territory.” The blinking world has gone bonkers.

Welcome to the brave new world of “hunkering down.” Across the globe the human race, with its inbred desire for affirming touches, close contact, and ongoing social interaction is being taught the virtues of “social distancing”...…….maintaining a safe distance from potentially dangerous creatures like ourselves. 

If you’re like me it’s just beginning to sink in. Successful hunkering down will be a matter of relying on ourselves. So much of what we have always counted on to sooth and entertain us is gone. 

No matter what your favored diversion, be it ballroom dancing, line dancing, or pole dancing……….you’re now on our own. Small wonder many of us are struggling to make sense of it all. It is so unlike us. Can you even imagine spending “up to four months” in such an unnatural isolation?

As I recall this started out as a 14 day “self-quarantine.” As of now it shows signs of stretching into weeks, even months. To make matter worse we are left to face the immediate future without the comforting distractions of March Madness, the NBA, the Masters, the English Premier League, concerts, Broadway plays, movies, children’s events, or our favorite sort of dancing.

Still, I suppose it could be worse. Truth is I am not a particularly social animal. Not anti-social, mind you, but seriously unsocial. That was true in my younger days. Now, when I hear only half or less of what goes on around me, social distancing has become a fact of life. 

Besides, except for the continuing dialogue with my best friend, who shares this “hunkered down” world with me, much of my most satisfying conversation is with myself. That part won’t change. All in all it seems to me I have “social distancing” down pat. It’s not that I don’t want to stay in touch. I just don’t need a lot of face to face conversation to do that.

Thankfully today’s technologies make communication in a world of social distancing easier than ever. Be it by phone, email, Facebook, or blogging our immediate family has been able to stay in touch and up to date. I recommend that enhanced level of contact to everyone.
And if you’re like me you are beginning to revisit any number of projects and activities that you have often promised to explore, but always put off. I have time for some of those now, at least until the weather warms up and gardening and yard care become viable options. Chances are you too have good intentions, long set aside, that are once again bubbling to the surface. Why not give one or more of them a try?

Among other things Roma and I have changed our weekly grocery-shopping trip to an every-other-week schedule. Since Winco is open 24 hours a day we tried a 7:00 AM arrival this week in hopes of avoiding a mob of like-minded shoppers. That seemed to work. We had to dodge an army of shelf stockers, but the shopper count was light and the shelves were nearly full. (Unless you fancied hand sanitizer.) Even managed to score a 12 pack of toilet paper. Hard to believe what counts as a win these days.

Finally, we mustn’t be put off by our “hunkering down” shortcomings and failures. After all, we’re new at this, treading an unmarked path. Apparently we will have time to learn. And if you are fortunate enough to stumble onto some new and surprising uses of your hunkering down time I hope you’ll be willing to share them with the rest of us.

Take care and stay safe. 

Friday, March 13, 2020

Coronavirus Free Fall

Have you ever before witnessed a time like this? Have you ever ridden such a roller coaster of life-changing events…..when your whole world, your basic assumptions about how the world works for you, were turned upside down?

Speaking for myself, in a most unsettling way it feels as though the community of family and friends Roma and I count on, the ones we want and need around us, have been pushed away from us at the very time we most want to know they are safe and well. 

Just look at this morning’s newspaper headlines. Consider the level of disruption. How often have you read about shopping riots in your own town……..over toilet paper and hand soap? Employment, the center of so many lives, both economically and socially, has been turned upside down for many, gone for some, and perhaps potentially dangerous for others.
And what about the cumulative chaos of closing schools? Well established routines are being disrupted big time. For many families ‘childcare,’ already a major element in their ‘work/school/childcare’ triangle, is suddenly THE major question requiring an answer. 

And consider the 180 degree turn in the events and institutions that impact our lifestyle. Beyond school closings and shopping riots there are cancellations of every sort. For TV sports addicts like me turning off the NBA, March Madness, Premier League, and other events has left a big hole in my life. For others darkened Broadway theaters, movie houses, concerts, and other local venues create the same void.

Looking ahead, there is so much we don’t know…… many opinions, so few verifiable facts. And what we do see is often foreign and surreal. For folks of any age, but especially our October and November friends, the world has become a disorienting place, where our means of navigating may feel out of date.

But deal with it we must. This is not the time for denial. Though we must be more careful then ever before, we must not forget the family and friends who want and need our attention. Whether by phone or email stay in touch with those special people. Help them in ways you can. Take time to spread your love into the suddenly dark corners of life in America…2020. And most of all, take care.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Telling your story - 2.0

        I suppose it happens more often than I realize. An idea I explored in a previous post, a tiny seed I scattered in hopes that it might take hold in at least a few minds has apparently landed on skeptical soil. I don’t know how widespread that doubting doubt may be, but based on a couple recent email conversations I feel the need to elaborate. If I’m going to turn you off, I want to at least make my case before you leave. So let’s see if I can fill in some of the blanks.

The last time out I explained what I thought were the virtues of telling your own story. So let's go back to the beginning of that rationale. Do you have a reason to commit any part of your personal story to the printed page…….whether on the back of an envelop or in a handsome paperback book? If you can’t think of a good argument for doing that, why bother? If you have better ways to spend your time, please carry on.

On the other hand, perhaps your reluctance is a matter of age. If you are 30 or 35 I hope it is too soon to be telling your life story. But if you have reached your October or November Years, and have a story to tell, it might be time to create that legacy-gift for your loved ones. Chances are some of them are already wondering what has made you the way you are. 

Yet even if that late-life condition describes you, what reasons might you have for putting your story on paper? Would an honest accounting of your personal life-journey hold the promise of a best-selling “tell all” book, with the possibility of a lucrative movie deal to follow? If so, that might be a good reason to move ahead.

On the other hand it pays to be realistic. In all likelihood our story, yours or mine, won’t attract that kind of attention. More to the point……how wide a distribution do you want it to have? As I explained in that earlier post my autobiographical effort was a very personal thing, frank and unembellished…….offering the reality I felt my loved ones deserved to know about me, without dwelling on every secret in my closet. And though it was meant for them, I was surprised at how much I learned about myself in the process.
So, assuming you have identified your reason(s) for telling your story, and the audience you have in mind, how would you proceed? Let’s consider that possibilities.

First of all, what do you want your story to tell that intended audience about you? Many published autobiographies are written to glorify the subject person, to build them up, and make them seem more appealing. Others are meant to strip away the superficial to reveal the “real person,” warts and all. Those extremes, and all the possibilities in between, are perfectly valid motives. It’s no one else’s place to judge the reasons you have in mind, but it is important that you know what they are. The vignettes you choose to create the life-portrait you want to paint of yourself will be determined by the purpose of your telling.

In my case I was telling a story intended to be read by only a few close family members. (How I managed to limit its distribution was explained in the first ‘Telling your story’ post.) The point is I was speaking to people who know me well. My telling would not be an ego trip for their benefit. I wanted to be as realistic and honest as possible. Those were the factors that dictated my story-telling choices.

To digress for a moment, setting out to create a fictional, novel-length story is a daunting task…..complex and time consuming. The writer must imagine the general thrust of his or her story, and the characters who will bring that story to life…..fleshing them out into real people the reader will believe. And all the while each piece of the story, from beginning to end, must fit together with all the other pieces. You start off knowing that you must carry on, if you stick with it, for months, even years. And there will certainly be times when you ask yourself if it is really worth the effort.

Telling your story in a vignette format, an anthology of brief, free-standing recollections, is something very different. Once you have decided what your story is meant to illustrate……whether you are a hero or a failure, very smart or not-so-smart, lucky or star-crossed, etc (most of us are a blend of all those and more)…….your task will be to choose and put in a written form snippets of your life that support your case. A collection of those applicable life incidents, those individual bits of evidence, assembled in a coherent whole will be your story.

Caution…..that is not the time to be in a hurry. As you choose and tell of those moments, the “snippets” that mean the most to you, take the time to understand why those particular incidents, often unremarkable at the time, have remained so compelling. Be ready to help your reader grasp what you believe are the lessons learned or the truth revealed in each episode. As you do that, you will be reliving those lessons all over again, remembering what you may have forgotten.

That in fact is one of the most appealing parts of telling a story in a vignette format. I did not, as I do in writing a novel, set out to imagine, from beginning to end, the story I wanted to tell. Instead, I closed my eyes and revisited specific times, places, and people I had encountered on my long journey to now…….moments that for some reason have stayed with me.
I was retrieving memories of childhood, school days, and adolescent times……soaking up feelings and impressions……remembering how they felt and their impact on the timid kid I was in those days. Simply stated, my research was choosing which of those recollections best illustrated the ‘me’ I wanted the reader to know.

In the course of those pleasant mind-travels I kept bumping into scarcely-remembered ways I had changed over time……outgrowing the old me and becoming someone new. Those were the transformations I wanted my few readers to understand……how I had changed and why. 

Truth to tell, I was surprised to find how much of me had been lying dormant in the corners of my mind. Sweeping up all that mental litter and bringing it out into the light day was something I should have done long ago.

Finally, on a practical level. Limiting your actual writing efforts to one remembered incident at a time…..a page or two or three……makes the writing process manageable. In the beginning you don’t have to be overly concerned about the chronological order of those pages you are creating. Those individual pieces can be arranged in any order you want when the time comes to create a finished product. 

       In the meantime, enjoy your meandering in the past, and while you’re there make the notes you will need to create an account of the moments you are visiting. Before long you will have gathered the raw materials you need to tell the story of you……the way you want it told.

       There you are. Telling your story that way is easy and enjoyable. I'm guessing both you and your readers will be glad you gave it a try.